A recent tweet by Michael J. Nelson (of MST3K/Rifftrax fame) used a phrase that had, for me, nigh-Proustian implications. Its mere utterance was enough to bring flooding back a lifetime of memories, vivid and haunting. It was a syllable that had as much cosmic resonance as om or na mya ho ren gen kyo–perhaps more
The word: CHAWMP.
You may not have heard this word before (if it can even be called a word). That’s because it only existed for one very brief period, spoken by one lone visionary, and then disappeared into the ether from whence it came. And it only was heard in one, very special place: McRib commercials.
The McRib was basically a fake-pork sandwich (the kind you can now get in packs of ten at Sam’s Clubs everywhere) on a sesame seed hoagie roll with pickles and onions. (Amazingly, not fake Big Mac onion chiplets, but actual onion slices.) According to Wikipedia, the McRib was first introduced in 1981 in select locations. McDonald’s tried to make it a nationwide menu item in 1989, but soon abandoned this experiment.
Since then, it’s been reintroduced and rescinded in brief, tantalizing spurts, taunting lovers of meat byproducts and sugary barbecue sauce. I’m not here to extol the virtues of this sandwich, which was pretty awful. (I liked it as a kid, but I also liked fluffernutter as a kid, so there you go.) I’ve come to celebrate the memory of the ads, and its magical monotone mantra.
The premise of the ad: Mustachioed Dad buys some McRibs for a nice healthy family dinner. On the drive home, he feels tempted as their tantalizing smell wafts throughout his car and invades his every pore. What’s that, McRib? You want me to eat you? I really shouldn’t, but…oh what the hell, I’m not made of stone!
All actors must make choices. At each stage of a script, he must choose which path he will travel for whatever role he inhabits, be it Hamlet, Willy Loman, or the narrator harassing the McRib Dad. Those choices, as much as the words on the page themselves, create the work of art known as Theatre. ACTING!
I’m one hundred percent sure that the copywriters did not pen a script in which they asked a narrator to say CHAWMP, because why would anybody do that? No, this was a decision made by the narrator. “Mind if I do some improv?” he must have asked, and the guys in the studio, feeling adventurous, must have said, “Yeah man, just riff!” The result: GOLD.
Kudos to McDonalds (a normally conservative outfit when it comes to ads) for retaining this bit of weirdness in the commercial. That’s why CHAWMP remains tattooed upon my brain, much like the pizza guy from the Polly-o String Cheese commercial who says NUTHIN’? As does the narrator’s decision to say MACK-donalds and MACK-rib, which I found almost as bizarre/hilarious.
Even better, this 15 second ad-let in which the narrator says CHAWMP not once, but twice!
The man responsible for CHAWMP is Tony Joe White, best known for his 1969 hit “Polk Salad Annie” and not much else. But apparently he’s opened up for Creedence, Sly Stone, and Steppenwolf, and also appeared in 1973’s Catch My Soul, a rock-opera version of Othello directed by Patrick McGoohan (nothing about that sounds like it could be terrible!). So the man’s had quite an interesting career. However, CHAWMP is clearly the pinnacle of his art.
According to his web site, Tony Joe White is also known as The Swamp Fox, which could also be the name of an outboard motor, or a sexual act so depraved I cannot describe it here. Just thought you guys would like to know that.
I should add that I don’t know for 100 percent certain that Tony Joe White is responsible for CHAWMP. It’s not in any bio of his that I could locate online, and a Google search had no authoritative answers. But just listen to “Polk Salad Annie” and tell me that’s not the same voice. The first time I heard that song on the radio, I nearly drove off the road. “HOLY SHIT! IT’S THE MCRIB GUY! HE SAID ‘CHAWMP’!”
The only other possible explanation is that somewhere out there exists a masterful Tony Joe White impersonator. And that McDonalds sought this man out–20 solid years after Tony Joe White’s sole hit song was released. I find this possibility not only implausible, but also crushingly depressing to even contemplate.
For extra evidence, peep this video where Mr. White duets with Johnny Cash. Him and The Man in Black share a few sly drug references and also appear be, if not high, then enjoying themselves far more than they should be. Johnny also throws in quite a few CHAWMPS himself.
McDonalds knew the power of CHAWMP, at least at first. When the McRib was reintroduced in 1991, the ads used CHAWMP at the very end. Although without the golden pipes of Tony Joe White, the effect was muted, as you can see/hear in this example.
However, subsequent ads eschewed CHAWMP for other dumb schemes that don’t even warrant mentioning in this space. And perhaps it’s just as well. Why try to recreate such a masterpiece? Do you try to redo the Mona Lisa, or a shooting star?
Perhaps it is good enough that for one brief, shining moment, there was a CHAWMP.